Horsing around

When will the Arabs find their own voice?

by Tarek Atia

Among media consumers Arabs are the smartest, says Mouafac Harb, news director of the new US-funded Arabic language satellite channel Al-Hurra. Ironically, Harb's acknowledgement that Arabs are "politically savvy" when it comes to news casts doubt on the channel's very mission.

Armed with $62 million in Congressional funding the channel's goal is to convince Arabs there is an alternative. On the surface that means an alternative to Al-Jazeera, the channel that has inspired so much anger, first in the Arab world and, latterly, from the United States.

The channel's slick promos -- developed by Martin Lambie-Nairn, the company that came up with the idea for Spitting Image, the British puppet satire show -- feature windows opening onto wide vistas, and horses running free, as well as the kinds of inspirational snippets you find on office walls -- "You think, you aspire, you choose, you express, you are free."

Norman Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the US entity that oversees the project, describes the Arabian stallion in the channel's promo ads as "a symbol of great respect and great pride within the region... a symbol of freedom... a symbol of openness."

And true, the horses do run free, though the lasting image is of them at rest, beside a lake in a desert amid surreal white snow. Harb insists the horses are "not standing, they're coming together".

More to the point, the majority of Arab viewers are probably unaware the horses are Arabian.

Many commentators have refrained from judging Al-Hurra on just a few broadcasts, or else have assumed the channel will mask its true intentions by airing news items they assume Arabs will like. One was surprised to see a lead item on Bishop Tutu's condemnation of Bush and Blair.

The reaction in Cairo, and across the Middle East, to the broadcasts which began on Saturday has been lukewarm. By mid-week some were still trying to find it on the dish. Others were surprised to discover shows on apes, dolphins and the Ancient Egyptians. The news, of course, was what most people wanted to see, and that only came in snippets. A strange selection of items ensued. Many on Iraq, including non-headline news like China getting a rebuilding contract, then brief items on a demonstration in Palestine, the situation in Haiti, and a giant panda being returned to China.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a 31-year-old computer engineer, thought the newscast "frivolous. The selection was too ideological," he said, "too much like propaganda." Ibrahim also lamented the "very trivial" amount of time dedicated to the Palestinian issue.

Harb defended the newscast, insisting it was tailored to a Middle Eastern audience, with issues "that people relate to and want to know about".

On Monday a 10-minute newscast ended with a sudden transition to a canned cable programme on the world's "Great Chefs". Another programme includes something about fashion shows for prisoners. In many ways the channel looks like a televised version of hi magazine, another US-funded project intended to disseminate fair and balanced news to the Arab world that has been dismissed by many as glossy but ultimately irrelevant.

"It's not fundamentally different from the US media," said marketing specialist Iman Hamed, "and it won't make a difference." Other initial viewer complaints focussed on presenters making mistakes and giggling, or being fidgety and distracting.

The channel's presenters are all "serious professionals", Harb said. The staff of 200 is mostly Lebanese and Egyptian -- a mix of Arab-Americans and Arabs from Qatar to Sudan who moved to the US for the job. Asked if it was hard to recruit Arab journalists for a project funded by the US government, Harb said that if the channel gained as many viewers as the number of resumes in his inbox, they would be doing okay.

How okay, most commentators agree, depends on the channel's political coverage. People are bound to watch at first, if only out of curiosity. But considering the initial reaction that might not last long. The view of many of those spoken to by cairolive.com is that Al-Hurra's news is "biased".

Asked why a talk show called Sa'a Hurra (Free Hour) mimicked the White House view that post Iraq-war violence is generated purely by Al-Qa'eda, Harb suggested a referendum be conducted to find out if Iraqis really supported what he termed the "so-called resistance". While most Arabs seem to have a more positive view of armed resistance in Iraq, Al-Hurra's editorial policy on that issue will surely remind viewers who pays the piper.

Al-Hurra may be "state funded" but it's not "state run", Harb says. "That kind of comparison could only be made if the political system in the US was like the ones in the Arab world. If I get a call from the State Department criticising my coverage, I say thank you very much."

Harb says he doesn't "recall getting a single phone call. There is no precedent of anyone from the outside criticising."

Although that unspoken thumbs-up from Washington may actually translate into an outspoken thumbs-down from "politically savvy" Arab viewers, at least Harb would have done his job.

In any case, Al-Hurra's news director says the channel will wait for clearer feedback on its performance.

"We go for scientific research," he said. "If Mustafa Bakri writes a piece, that is not a reaction."

Bakri, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Osbou', was one of the first to comment on the channel, telling the Associated Press on the day it was launched that it was a "means to achieve American plans to dominate and control the Arab world".




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